Have you been taught that the contemporary Churches of Christ are nondenominational congregations which model the first century church in their doctrine? Further, do you believe that this doctrine was restored to first century perfection by spiritual pioneers of the early 1800s such as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone? If so, many of your notions about what these men believed and whether the contemporary church reflects the doctrine they attempted to restore will be challenged in a book by Walt Yancy (Endangered Heritage: An Examination of Church of Christ Doctrine, 1991, Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company).
For those who say, "Why does it matter what the pioneers of the restoration movement thought? What does the Bible say?" I say, fine. Go back to the Bible. But, for others who continue to make the mistake of equating the contemporary church with that model of Christianity envisioned by Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others the book provides a rude awakening. These people wrestled with how to fellowship and worship in a way that is true to the New Testament and upon which Christians could unite. We have the writings of the men and they are looked up to by millions who attend churches with the names of the Church of Christ, the Christian Church, and the Disciples of Christ. As humans, those pioneers' visions were flawed but Yancy shows clearly that what exists today can be distinguished from what they had in mind in the early 1800s.
Copious quotes of the restoration movement leaders fill the book. Yancy does this for at least two reasons: readers can be more certain that the pioneers did in fact teach differently than is now taught in the church; and, the long passages show that points have not been taken out of context.
The book begins with the author describing the doubts that he had with the veracity of several key aspects of contemporary Church of Christ doctrine. Those doubts led him to the most intensive Bible study of his life with an attempt to be as objective in his interpretation as possible. He also read extensively about the history of the restoration movement. His reading was not just what others said about those pioneers but what those pioneers wrote themselves.
Yancy describes how the Church of Christ is a splinter group broken off from the main body of what had become of the Stone-Campbell movement by the turn of the century. Of the million members of restoration movement congregations after the turn of the century, the census indicated that only 15% were members of the Church of Christ. He argues that the group was once part of a rapidly growing movement but is now losing its membership.
A very brief list of doctrinal items characterizing the contemporary Churches of Christ is given. Following that a concise history of the early restoration movement is provided along with short biographies of the major personalities associated with the movement. The section concludes with a list of ten major doctrinal issues characterizing the early nineteenth century movement that were gleaned by the author from his study.
The next section presents the major doctrinal similarities of the two centuries. While ten similarities are indicated, the only two which receive extended treatment are the essentiality of proper baptism and communion. The author not only points out that these two ordinances were common to both the restoration movement and the contemporary church but he argues that there is scriptural evidence to confirm the traditional positions.
In contrast, the next section discusses in detail the three concepts which have been the major source of problems for the church during this century: 1 ) that use of instrumental music in worship is a sin; 2) that the Church of Christ is not a denomination; and 3) that only members of the Church of Christ can go to heaven. Not only does Yancy fail to find support for these positions in the writings of the restoration pioneers but he ultimately draws these conclusions:
1. There are Christians outside the Church of Christ.
2. We have been wrong in our stand against instrumental music in worship.
3. The Churches of Christ constitute a religious denomination, based upon the commonly accepted usage of the word in the English language.
As heretical as these conclusions may seem to conservatives they may appear trivial to others who, like Yancy, have also been examining the doctrine for some time. What weren't tackled were issues such as the following which go even further to shake the foundations of the organization.
1. The church has fallen into the rut of other man-made religious groups by assuming that the ekklesia spoken of in the New Testament is some sort of organization we are supposed to build based upon instructions deciphered from the clues scattered throughout the New Testament.
2. Yet, the church is worse than a denomination. Many if not most denominations don't even pretend to be restoring New Testament Christianity. The Church of Christ, however, is a man-made institution masquerading as the ekklesia referred to in the New Testament. It is commonly taught that salvation comes from being a member of the organization and serving it faithfully. Contrast that with the clear teachings in the Bible that salvation comes from a relationship with Jesus and serving him faithfully. Somehow, the focus has been shifted from Jesus to a man-made institution.
3. Linked with the above, a clergy has developed within the Church of Christ over the last century or so. Contrast that with Campbell: he did not take money for his preaching and had a very negative opinion about a full time paid clergy class. Yet today few members of the Church of Christ seem to know how to operate apart from the elders, the deacons, and the ministers they've hired to do the work and thinking for them.
Having said that, I don't want to criticize the book too much because I think for many current members of the church it will be a good start on their path to questioning the unwritten creedal positions they are probably familiar with but with which they are uncomfortable. Yet, as Leroy Garrett has pointed out (Restoration Review, January1992), I'm not convinced that restoring the first century "church" is the ultimate goal. Instead we should pray that GOD will guide us to have the Christianity he wants us to have regardless of whether it matches that of some particular time in history.
In summary then, the book was a refreshing examination of Church of Christ doctrine. My view as a former member, however, is that the book did not go far enough. Other issues which deserve as much if not more attention will have to wait until another book with a similar investigative approach is published. Until such a book is written we can be thankful that these and other issues are being discussed regularly and openly in magazines such as The Examiner, The Word & Work, and Integrity.